Truth and Other Casualties from Bush's War on Science

By Paul Koberstein

The shocking behavior of Julie MacDonald, the disgraced ex-Interior Department official, creates a credibility problem for federal environmental agencies, and raises significant questions for the public. Who would believe anything that's been tainted with MacDonald's fingerprints? Who else has poisoned the science with politics? How can you tell what to believe?

No one understands this credibility gap better than the scientists who work for the government. The Bush administration seems, however, to be in denial. When asked about overwhelmingly negative comments in a recent survey scientists who for the EPA, agency spokesman Jonathan Shradar attributed some of the discontent to the “passion” scientists have toward their work, CNN reported. He dismissed the scientists' concern about the EPA's lack of scientific integrity.

More than half of 1,586 EPA staff scientists who responded online to a 44-question online survey reported they had experienced incidents of political interference in their work in the last five years, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists survey released in April 2008.

In the last three years, the Union of Concerned Scientists has surveyed three environmental agencies about questions of political inference and scientific integrity, including the EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (part of the Department of Commerce) were the others. It has also surveyed federal climate scientists who work for a variety of agencies, including NOAA and NASA. Two other non-profit groups participated in the survey, the Government Accountability Project and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

By law, the work of all these agencies is supposed to be fueled by science, but under Bush, politicians have interfered to an alarming degree, according to detailed accounts provided to Congress.

The disruption of climate may be the most vexing environmental issue affecting our planet, but more than half (58 percent) of 150 climate scientists reported that they had personally experienced one or more incidents of political interference within the past five years, such  as edits in their reports that changed the meaning of scientific findings.

Significant numbers of scientists say political interference is a serious concern for endangered species.

In a 2005 survey of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, nearly half whose work is related to endangered species (44 percent) reported that they “have been directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making jeopardy or other findings that are protective of species.” One in five scientists revealed they have been instructed to compromise their scientific integrity. They said they had been “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from a (Fish and Wildlife Service) scientific document,” such as a biological opinion.

Interestingly, executives at the Fish and Wildlife Service ordered their employees not to respond to the survey. Yet, of the 1,400 who received the survey, nearly 30 percent defied the order and responded.

At the National Marine Fisheries Service (also known as NOAA Fisheries), more than one third of those in a position to make recommendations about protecting endangered species said they had been interfered with. They said they had been “directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making findings that are protective” of marine life and nearly one in four of those conducting such work reported being “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from a NOAA Fisheries scientific document.”

EPA scientists also reported personally experiencing political interference, ranging from the “explicit to the subtle,” the Union of Concerned Scientists reported. Its survey at the EPA found that 94 scientists (7 percent) had frequently or occasionally been “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from an EPA scientific document.”

It found that 191 scientists (16 percent) had personally experienced frequent or occasional situations in which scientists have “actively objected to, resigned from, or removed themselves from a project because of pressure to change scientific findings.”

Honesty “not allowed”

At the Fish and Wildlife Service survey of employees, many scientists wrote essays on the topic of how to improve integrity at the agency. According to PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, examples of these comments included:

-- “We are not allowed to be honest and forthright, we are expected to rubber stamp everything. I have 20 years of federal service in this and this is the worst it has ever been.”

-- “I have never seen so many findings and recommendations by the field be turned around at the regional and Washington level.”

-- “Recently, [Interior] officials have forced changes in Service documents, and worse, they have forced upper-level managers to say things that are incorrect…It's one thing for the Department to dismiss our recommendations, it's quite another to be forced (under veiled threat of removal) to say something that is counter to our best professional judgment.”

At a House hearing last year, John Young, a former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, described pressure he faced while he coordinated the preparation of a bull trout recovery plan, a critical habitat designation for bull trout, and a 5-year review of the bull trout's status.

Young said that scientists initially proposed to designate the bull trout's “critical habitat” as the entire range of the endangered species. In the Columbia River basin, that would have included the parts of watersheds that area above the federal projects on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Documents show that Julie MacDonald, the deputy assistant Interior secretary, directed that the entire Columbia and Snake basins be deleted from the trout's critical habitat.

“While an argument might be made that exclusion of the mainstem Snake and Columbia River areas directly managed by the agencies operating the (federal hydro system) is appropriate, blanket exclusion of the (entire basin) is completely illogical,” Young said.

He said scientists were overruled. Documents obtained by Cascadia Times through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that MacDonald insisted on those blanket exclusions.

Moreover, he noted that there are hundreds of large and small reservoirs built for irrigation water storage, flood control, and hydropower generation elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Again, documents show that the scientists were overruled by MacDonald, who excluded those man-made lakes from the trout's critical habitat.

“The final critical habitat designation for bull trout was a fraction of that presented to (Fish and Wildlife Service) managers following public comment and peer review, and the result was scattered patches of habitat across the Pacific Northwest not reflective of connected habitat. representing the life history requirements of this species. Accordingly, the critical habitat designation is currently being litigated by several conservation organizations,” Young told Rahall's committee.

In the Klamath Basin, critics like Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild say the agency “turned biology on its head. It protected only three small streams as critical habitat for the bull trout, which needs to be able to migrate to areas where the water is cold and clean.

The analysis also skewed the costs of imposing the critical habitat designation. According to Young, the costs of fish passage facilities built long ago were included by Interior officials, even though facilities were built to benefit salmon.

The Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a five-year review of the bull trout's status, showing that some populations have improved, some have gotten worse, and that overall the fish deserved to be listed. To date, this review has not been released. “My understanding is that the USFWS intends to begin work on a new 5-year review for bull trout. The inescapable perception is that policy makers in the Office of the Assistant Secretary are looking for a different result.”

Young also testified that political appointees deleted massive amounts of information from an economic analysis of the critical habitat proposal.

“50+ pages of this analysis describing the potential economic benefits of the proposed bull trout critical habitat designation were deleted,” Young said. “Therefore, the economic analysis only described potential negative economic effects of the proposed designation.”

Bad Math at NOAA

Critics of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service's management of salmon and other ocean resources often generates conflicts of interest and confusing policies. The agency's Office of Protected Resources enforces the endangered species act for marine species, while its Sustainable Fisheries division promotes commercial exploitation.

These conflicting duties, according to a survey of NMFS; scientists, creates a working environment that is rife with political interference. Comments given in the PEER survey included:

-- “The scientific integrity of the National Marine Fisheries Service can be improved by getting industry and the Administration out of the Regional Administrators offices. Also, take Protected Resources out of NMFS!! We are the fox watching (and killing) the henhouse.”

-- ”It seems that we are encouraged to think too much about the consequences and how to get around them, rather than just basing our recommendations on the best available data.”

-- ”This Administration is by far the worst in my life with regard to natural resources protection, and yet somehow the public is generally unaware of this fact. Perhaps if it were addressed by the media or academia it would help improve our scientific integrity, not to mention our natural resources.”

NMFS scientists regularly review dam operations in western rivers where conflicts with salmon often lead to tragic consequences. Federal courts have often ruled that the agency has failed to protect salmon from impacts from dams, especially in the Columbia-Snake, Klamath and Sacramento-San Joaquin river systems.

In 2000, NOAA Fisheries biologist Mike Kelly was assigned to analyze federal irrigation hydro projects in the Klamath River basin to ensure that they did not jeopardize listed salmon species.

In 2001, in the face of a debilitating drought, a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of commercial fishermen and environmentalists prodded the Bureau of Reclamation to dramatically reduce water deliveries to farmers in the basin so that downstream coho salmon had a fighting chance. NOAA had found that water transfers to farms in the Klamath were jeopardizing the coho.

Kelly's job called on him to determine whether 2002 water deliveries might also harm the fish. But that year the Bureau of Reclamation had declared that there was sufficient water for all needs and proceeded to keep most of the water in upstream reservoirs for summer irrigation. This deprived young salmon of the water they needed to make their escape to sea, and jeopardized the coho fry that needed hiding and feeding areas in the streamside vegetation.

A federal judge refused to order the bureau to provide water necessary for the immediate survival of young salmon. As the summer of 2002 wore on, the flows released by the federal Bureau of Reclamation declined as more water was diverted to farmers upstream. The water diversions led to a massive die-off of salmon, steelhead and other fish in the Klamath.

“My immediate supervisor advised me that she had been informed that Vice President Cheney had been briefed,” Kelly told a House committee chaired by Rep. Nick Rahall in 2007.

“That is the only time that the Vice President was mentioned to me during the consultation process,” Kelly told the committee. “I was aware that President Bush had declared that he would do everything he could to get the water for the farms.”

Kelly said he realized that political pressure might be applied, but believed that his supervisors would shield him from pressure.

He developed a draft biological opinion, in which he found that removing water from the river would jeopardize the existence of coho salmon. But the Department of Justice under Attorney General John Ashcroft deemed Kelly's work “indefensible.”

“I was never told what was indefensible about it, and I think Justice was mistaken in their conclusion' Kelly said.

Jim Lecky, the Assistant Southwest Region Administrator at the time, traveled to Kelly's field office in Arcata, Calif., to help finish an analysis that the Justice Department would deem “defensible.” Kelly considered Lecky's analysis, to be “much weaker” than his,

“I viewed it as a somewhat complicated case of 1+1=2. I never suspected that I would be asked to support the conclusion that 1+1=3, but I was.”

But before Lecky came to Arcata, and before Kelly's original draft analysis had been reviewed by Justice, he sent a letter to Reclamation saying that they had already concluded that the Klamath Project “was not likely to adversely affect” coho salmon if they operated the project as proposed.

“This is when I began to worry,” Kelly says.

Then came the fish kill. The Fish and Wildlife Service said low river flows in the lower Klamath River were a key factor in the deaths of the 64,000 adult salmon and other fish.

Kelly asked to be dismissed from the project team because “I would not participate in an illegal action. I never took insubordination lightly, and this was by far the most difficult moment of my professional life. But I was being asked to provide scientific support for a '1+1=3' conclusion, which, of course, would be a clear violation of my professional ethics and official federal ethics rules, as well as a possible violation of the law.”

Kelly was never reprimanded, and, in fact, received an award for his work.

“Clearly it didn't matter if 1+1=3. They had obviously been ordered to push the thing through anyway.”

Ultimately, the courts found the flawed analysis — known as a BiOp, or biological review — to be illegal under the Endangered Species Act.

He now says there is strong evidence that salmon were killed due to a “blatantly illegal decision,” and thinks there should be an investigation by the appropriate authorities, including those outside the agencies, such as the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department, to determine whether any civil or criminal violations of any law may have occurred.

Conflicts in these salmon rivers remain unresolved. Federal Judge James R. Redden has rejected three salmon protection plans in the Columbia; salmon in the Sacramento are now in sharp decline, a disaster for coastal fishing communities; and the Klamath's salmon are subject to fish-killing dams and irrigation systems that withdraw too much water.

Meanwhile, Jim Lecky, the NMFS official whose recalcitrance played a key role in the deaths of thousands of fish in the Klamath, has been promoted. He is now head of NMFS' Office of Protected Resources, where he is in charge of protecting endangered fish, marine mammals and all other species that live in all U.S. ocean waters.

Featured Stories:
Scroll to Top